NBC is showing old stages of the Tour de France. This week they showed a replay of Stage 5 from 2014 — a stage that formed the basis for a chapter in my novel “Arenberg Forest.”
On the morning of stage 5, I was up even before my alarm, ready to read all the news and steeling myself to bug everyone for some pre-stage content – some carefully staged selfies, some artistic shots of water bottles and spokes, some cutesy broken English tweets to competitors that would bring a chuckle. It was going to be the last thing anyone was going to want to do but it was clearly my job to make it happen.
I pulled open the curtains. Grey, wet, rain beaded on the window. Oh no. This was bad. I knew the prediction had been for some rain today, with some of the gutters damp already as we pulled in last evening, but this was worse than I thought it was going to be. I looked at my phone. Unremitting rain for the entire day. Eighty percent chance. A lot of them had already been dreading the day, a stage that had been talked about constantly since the race route had been revealed the previous fall. Stage 5, a mini Paris-Roubaix. A race over the fabled cobbled roads of Northern France that were usually part of the famous one-day race held in April, a classic race that the scrawny, leaned out climbers, so comfortable on the unforgiving slopes of the Alps and the Pyrenees, skipped, leaving the slippery, cut-edge cobbled roads to the broader heavier riders. Like Kristof. The Dutch, the Norwegians, the Belgians, the Australians. They were the ones who longed for the teeth-rattling roads of the north. But now, in the first week of the Tour de France, the lightweight climbers had no choice. They, like everyone else, had to spend a day on the bumpy and now slippery blue-stone cobbles that made this gritty corner of France famous. Their best hope was to survive the day unscathed, no falls, no unexpected launches into the crowd or a ditch, no unforgiving gaps of time.
I sighed. Now no one was going to want to even talk to me, let alone give me cutesy upbeat commentary to share with the world. I wondered if Rudi, the team’s general classification rider, now sitting in fifth place, just ten seconds behind the Spanish yellow jersey wearer, was awake yet. It was better if he wasn’t, if he could scrape another hour of untroubled sleep from the night. Someone had told me that before the team’s reconnaissance visit here about ten days ago, Rudi had never ridden any of the French cobbled sections.
I rooted around in my suitcase, trying to figure out the best combination of clothing to keep me dry and comfortable during what promised to be an awful day.
The dining room was as I expected. I poked my head in as I headed to the office to print out some additional maps. Mostly silent, the clinking of plates about the only indication that sixty world class athletes were getting ready to participate in an epic day. My eye scanned over the several teams sitting at the different tables, the colors of hoodies and t shirts the only way to keep them apart. The Australian team over in the far corner seemed a bit jollier than the others, their former Paris-Roubaix winning manager telling jokes and all but slapping a few backs.
I caught Kristof’s eye over the head of a French teammate. He raised his coffee cup in greeting. He looked calm, concentrated. He looked to the left, at the enormous window covered in raindrops and looked back at me. He smiled.
I felt like I could read his mind. “Oh, good,” he was thinking. “This is a day for me.” My heart sank a little.
I went out to the bus to see if they needed any help. Karin was hunched in the back storage area, wrapping sandwich portions with great speed, humming to herself.
“Can I do anything?” I asked.
“No, I’m good.” She paused, standing up straight to stretch her back. “I don’t even know what to give them. It’s a short brutal stage. It will be less than four hours and they are starting early so I don’t even know how much they’ll eat. But I guess we need to be ready for anything.”
“Maybe you can help the guys with the bottles or something.”
I went to the truck where the mechanics were checking tire pressure. For this stage they had completely changed bikes, switching from the lightweight highly-engineered road bikes that had been used for the first four stages to sturdier bikes, with more robust handlebars and differently filled tires to cope with the roads. I’d heard a lot of discussion in the last few days about what the right tire pressure would be for today. A lower pressure was necessary so that a tire wouldn’t pop the first time it encountered the sharp unprotected edge of a cobblestone. But if the pressure was too low it took too much energy to ride along the smooth roads that constituted the majority of the route. 25 kilometers of cobble over a day’s course of 140 kilometers. Did you want to be comfortable on the cobbles or fast on the smooth pavement? The question had made several meals pass more quickly.
The guys were all concentrating, each intent on his own task, the sound of the pressurized pumps the only sound other than the ticking of wheels turning as they were checked.
After the depart I was assigned to the first feeding zone, right before the cobbles started near the Carrefour des Arbes. We passed by the fabled restaurant, the crowds undiminished and undismayed by the driving rain. I saw Flemish flags snapping proudly in the wind from the tops of white campers. I saw an Irish flag draped over a young man’s head in an attempt to keep him somewhat drier, I saw elderly men in snappy bright-red jackets and toddlers in clear plastic raincoats. The enthusiasm of the crowd was the exact opposite of the atmosphere inside the team bus an hour ago.
We parked the car in as dry an area as we could find and hiked up the road. I had six cotton musette bags slung across me, over my borrowed Directe Bank parka, which I was forced to wear so that the riders would know which team I was connected to. As we got into position, picking the fourth spot along the row of similarly garbed and burdened team assistants, Carlos beckoned to me.
“Antonio is out,” he shouted in my ear. “He went down twice and abandoned. I think he broke his elbow. It just came over the race radio.”
Antonio was the Spanish rider, the pre-race favorite, who was sitting in the number two position, sitting at the same time as the overall race leader before the start today.
“What?” I said. It seemed unbelievable. He hadn’t even placed a wheel on a cobblestone and already he was out.
“It’s carnage out there,” Carlos continued. “It sounds like there are two or three crashes at every roundabout.”
My stomach turned.
“Our guys OK?” I asked.
“So far, yes,” he said. “But don’t get your hopes up.”
I sent up a little prayer. Please, please, was all it said. I realized as soon as it flitted across my mind that it wasn’t a prayer, it was an imperfect communication – my attempt to try to influence Kristof. Please don’t be stupid. Take it easy, just survive the stage. It’s just one day. You don’t need to show them what you can do every day.
It turned out Karin was right. Most of the riders didn’t grab their bags, perhaps not needing the nutrition, but more likely not wanting to swerve even a little bit to get to the left to grab onto the bag. I hoped they all had enough water because even in the rain they would need to drink and it was almost impossible for them to get extra bottles once those awful cobbled sections started.
“This is useless,” Carlos said, when they were all passed. “Let’s just go to the end unless Luca has something else for us to do.” We hiked back down the road and into the car, the crowd starting to disperse around us now that the race was passed. Carlos got on his phone.
“We can just go to the end,” he said.
It took us just ten minutes to extricate ourselves from the crowd of cars leaving the course and within a few minutes we were on the highway, heading to the finish outside Valenciennes, at the end of the cobbled sections. The rain continued to beat down on the windshield. Carlos switched on the race radio, the official broadcast of what was happening in the stage. We heard of one crash after another. The talented young American rider in his first Tour de France had somersaulted into a ditch, taking some spectators with him; three Spanish teammates had tangled on the sidewalk in front of a brewery, spilling into each other on an unexpectedly slippery patch where the trucks departed; the English national champion ate up more than a minute waiting to have a flat tire fixed. It was completely unbelievable, unlike anything I had ever even heard of occurring in one day, let alone witnessed in my year and a half in the sport.
Please, please, my bleating, ineffective message went up into the ether one more time.
We got to the finish very quickly and were able to find a spot to pull the car in next to the team bus. Carlos turned to me. “Not a bad day to just sit on the bus and watch. Here,” he said, proffering a flask to me. “A little brandy. It looks like you could use it. You okay?”
I nodded, but took the flask. It was barely two and it felt like the day would never be over.
“I’m fine,” I said. “You think it’s ok for me to be on the bus?”
Usually staff at my level were not allowed on the bus, even when the team was out doing their important work on the road.
“Sure,” he said. “Come on. I think you’ll need to see the tv coverage to do your job, right? And I’ll deal with Luca if he gives you a hard time. Besides, he’ll never know. He has other things to worry about.”
I nodded and climbed out of the car, disentangling myself from the uncaught bags, not even aware that they were still arrayed across my chest under my seatbelt.
When we got on the bus four staff people were already distributed in the first few rows, eyes glued to the television suspended over the driver’s position. No one acknowledged us as Carlos and I crept by to sit behind them.
“What’s going on?” Carlos whispered to the mechanic in front of him, Rogier, the young Dutch guy who was a whiz from what I’d been told.
“We’re okay. Izzy and Marcus had a wobble but they are ok. Peter popped a wheel but the neutral support people were right there so he was ok,” Rogier whispered back, with an urgency that reminded me of war movies.
Our unit seemed fine and fit for battle.
The camera zeroed in on Kristof, near the front of the leading group, his glasses shielding his expression, Rudi right behind as if tethered by an invisible three-foot chain to Kristof’s rear tire. A cheer went up from our small group on the bus. The commentator was speaking French but I gathered that he was relaying Kristof’s impressive history with these roads, with the spring classics, and guessing at the team’s strategy in having Kristof assigned to making sure that Rudi made it through the stage in one piece and near the front.
I cheered too but my stomach tightened again. The camera lingered in a close-up on Rudi’s face, his lips spread in a grimace, then shifted forward to Kristof, his upper body immobile as his legs continued to pump as if he were out on a clear spring day on newly paved road.
“Very good, very good,” one of the mechanics said excitedly, standing up to pace behind me in the aisle. “30K left. They can do it.”
The wind shifted and the rain came directly at the window next to me. I watched the television expecting the same wind to buffet our two riders. But they plowed on, heads down, trying to shield themselves from the water. A few moments later Kristof turned to say something to Rudi over his shoulder. You could barely see Rudi nod, but right after Kristof sped forward through the group of riders in the arrow ahead of him, Rudi still locked on his wheel. Soon they were five and then ten feet in front of the others in a massive display of strength and courage. And perhaps stupidity. Our bus didn’t cheer this time. What was Kristof doing? There was no way this was a pre-planned tactic, there was no way Rudi would have the ability to continue on at this pace for the rest of the race and Kristof would be expending energy he might greatly need in the coming days as the race headed into the steep Alpine slopes that were so difficult for him. Now Kristof opened his mouth, gasping to get more oxygen and to plow on. He was right behind the motorcycle with the TV camera and I saw the spray from the motorcycle’s wheels hitting him in the face. I could see him startle and slow to avoid the stream of brown, dirty water. Rudi didn’t realize he was slowing and almost hit Kristofs’ rear wheel, veering in the final second to avoid going down. He exhibited some superior bike-handling skills in keeping upright as his rear wheel fishtailed, but the hesitation of the two of them was enough to have them swallowed back into the lead group, their potential for a breakaway evaporating before our eyes.
Our watching group seemed to all let our breath out at the same time. I was relieved. Surely Kristof would check in with the car on the radio and get some further instructions on what they wanted him to do and he wouldn’t do any more freelancing.
I got up and went to the back of the bus to find a bottle of water. I sipped my water and looked out the window, letting my focus soften on the now fogged over windows. I stood there for a while, wishing the stage were already over, that whatever was going to happen had already happened, that Kristof was standing outside the bus, tired and unhappy but in one piece, no MRIs, no x-rays planned for the evening, no head injuries, no broken wrists. I knew it wasn’t what I was supposed to be wishing for but I was paralyzed by fear, by a sudden and unexpected desire for protection, even as I knew it meant mediocrity and disappointment. I turned my head to crack my neck, to bring me back to the reality of where I was and what I was supposed to want and went back to my seat.
20K to go now. The leading group still a minute out, but with a good number of the overall contenders tightly tucked in together, moving as one down the stormy road. Our watching group remained quiet as the tenths of kilometers ticked off on the screen, the commentators seemingly not saying anything important because nothing was really happening.
Then at 10k, we saw Kristof flick his elbow, providing a signal of some sort. He shifted to the left and surged through a gap that didn’t look to exist, Rudi somehow able to remain with him through the acceleration. They paused at the front of the group for a split second and then accelerated forward. Kristof’s teeth were bared as he pushed forward, looking over his shoulder every few seconds to make sure Rudi was still with him.
“Yes, yes!” Carlos shouted next to me, standing to shake some of the excitement out of him.
“He is going to do it,” yelled one of the mechanics, the one I barely knew. I wasn’t sure who he was referring to – Kristof or Rudi. Kristof was putting in the superior effort, leading Rudi forward and letting Rudi conserve a bit of his energy by following in the wind shadow Kristof’s broad back created. I knew this was supremely difficult for Rudi, with his toothpick arms and long, delicate shins, sometimes looking like they weren’t substantial enough to thrust him up a flight of stairs let alone along the tops of the worst cobbles in Europe.
I held my breath and watched. They ticked through nine K and then eight, with the lead group not able to catch up with them, but with Kristof not able to create a further gap. I knew it was Rudi’s inability to go any faster that was keeping them in that uncomfortable in between state.
At 5K, just as Kristof and Rudi went under the banner, there was a tumble of two riders in the rear of the lead group. I couldn’t quite tell who it was on the grey tv screen, but the crash made the entire group hesitate a split second, and Kristof accelerated again. At first it looked like Rudi wasn’t going to make it, was going to melt back in with his key rivals, but then he surged forward and was back on Kristof’s wheel.
I wondered why Kristof was doing this. There was no way Rudi was going to be able to maintain any real chance of a lead in the coming days and Kristof was just expending himself. Was he showing off? Did he consider this his road, his pave, his part of the world? Was he just following the directions he’d been given, to haul Rudi with him all the way to the end? I wondered if Rudi wanted to do this. Hadn’t the plan to been to just get through the day safely and without losing a chunk of time? No one had said anything about a dare devil attempt to win a stage.
The next seven minutes were the longest in my life. We all watched, completely silent, as our pair slid down the road towards us. At 3K, Carlos said, “We need to go outside.” I roused myself. He was right. They would need towels, drinks, protective support. We were already late. I scrambled to my feet.
“I’ll go, you stay.” He pressed me back down and with surprising speed, tapped one of the other guys on the shoulder and they were gone and out the door, swinging nylon bags of supplies over their shoulder. He wasn’t being nice to me, letting me stay in the dry bus and watch the end of the race. He wanted someone bigger than me to help him wade through the crowd and shepherd our riders to the stage, or anti-doping or wherever they needed to go. I wasn’t much help in a crowd of raving French fans.
Last kilometer. They were safely through the red banner, with the leading group nipping right after them. I was tired of holding my breath. I still wasn’t sure I wanted to happen. In my mind I could see the two of them spilling into each other on the final bend, like Dennis Menchov in that final kilometer of the Giro d’Italia a few years ago, skidding down the historic road in front of the Roman Forum before bouncing up and onward.
Fifty meters from the finish, Kristof looked over his shoulder one final time, making sure Rudi was still there and making sure the others were still where he thought they were. He nodded at Rudi and swung off to the left, allowing Rudi to pass by him and go on to roll over the line first, taking the stage win and perhaps moving up a spot or two in the overall classification with the time bonus. As they rolled forward into the waiting arms of Carlos and Benny, Kristof and Rudi clasped each other, some brotherhood bond having been formed on those awful roads. I didn’t even think that Kristof much cared for Rudi or thought him to be a particularly talented rider. But today I guess that didn’t matter.
I felt ill with fatigue. The thing I wanted to happen a while ago was happening. In a few minutes Kristof would be standing drained outside the bus, without a victory for himself, but having spent way too much energy and sacrificing perhaps good results for the coming week. But the team had a stage win for Rudi, his first ever in such a big race. That didn’t make it better for me. Kristof could have taken the stage, confirmed himself as the absolute king of the cobbles, asserting his domination one more time. But he hadn’t. He hadn’t.